Friday's decisive state Senate vote to repeal the death penalty in New Mexico was a direct result of November's election of several new lawmakers.
That's the opinion expressed both by a leading supporter and by a leading opponent of House Bill 285, which would replace the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.
The bill, which cleared the House 40-28 last month, passed the Senate 24-18 after a nearly three-hour debate. It now goes to Gov. Bill Richardson, who in recent days has said his support for capital punishment has softened and he hasn't decided whether he'll sign the legislation.
“I have met with many people and will continue to consider all sides of the issue before making a decision,” said the Democratic governor, who called it “an extremely difficult issue.”
New Mexico, one of 36 states with a death penalty, would be the first to ban executions since New Jersey in 2007.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, said Friday she was able to get the bill through the Senate this year because the 2008 election added three more senators to the Democratic majority. In recent years the bill had been stopped in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Last week that committee voted in favor of HB285 by a one-vote margin.
“The election gave us a more comfortable margin,” Chasey said.
Lem Martinez, who is district attorney for the 13th Judicial District, has spoken against the repeal bill at committee hearings on behalf of the state District Attorneys Association. He said Friday that the Senate vote was the result of (Barack) Obama's coattails. “Last November the voters spoke,” Martinez said.
Martinez said he intends to speak with Richardson to lobby for a veto of HB265.
Chasey said she also plans to talk to Richardson. “Our work's not finished yet,” she said.
The governor's office set up a phone line for gathering the opinions of New Mexicans on the issue. The number is 505-476-2225. Those wishing to weigh in via e-mail can do so by visiting the governor's Web site at www.governor.state.nm.us and clicking on “Contact the Governor.”
Richardson must act on the bill within three days after he receives it. A spokesman said he hadn't received the bill by the end of Friday but expects to get it today. That would make Wednesday the deadline for him to sign or veto the bill.
One person who intends to call that hotline is Colleen Gore, mother of 9-year-old Artesia girl, Dena Lynn Gore, who was murdered in 1986 by Terry Clark. Clark was lethally injected in 2001, the most recent execution by the state of New Mexico.
Colleen Gore said in a telephone interview Friday that she was disappointed by the Senate vote. “I think it's kind of sad,” she said.
“I think instead of repealing the death penalty they should be working on ways to shorten the appeals process,” said Gore, who spent 15 years attending court hearings for Clark. Clark voluntarily stopped his appeals process shortly before he was executed.
“I got closure from the execution,” Gore said.
Two men remain on death row: Timothy Allen, 47, of Farmington, who was sentenced to death in 1995 for the murder, kidnapping and attempted rape of 17-year-old Sandra Phillips; and Robert Fry, 35, of Bloomfield, who was condemned in 2002 for killing Betty Lee, 36, in 2000.
Technically, neither sentence would be affected if Richardson signs the law. However, the governor could lift their death sentences.
One death-penalty case is pending in Santa Fe — that of John La Bombard, 36, who confessed to the shooting death of Frank Segura, 39, in the Santa Fe National Forest.
During Friday's Senate debate, many of the arguments centered around questions of religion, morals and justice.
The death penalty is just, said Sen. Rod Adair, R-Roswell. “Six thousand years of recorded history confirms it is and 400 years of American Judeo-Christian tradition says it is.”
But Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, argued, “In 6,000 years we've evolved. ... We shouldn't be relying on the lizard part of our brain as we did 6,000 years ago.
Sen. Kent Cravens, R-Albuquerque, argued that the death penalty puts the “fear of God” into those who commit terrible crimes. He disagreed with repeal supporters who have argued that most condemned killers would rather be executed than face years in prison. “Life in prison would be a picnic compared with (execution),” Cravens said.
Sen. Linda Lovejoy, D-Crownpoint, spoke about her native Navajo culture's attitude toward crime. The Navajo way, she said, puts more emphasis on healing and restoring harmony than retribution.
Senate Republican Whip Bill Payne of Albuquerque argued that getting rid of the death penalty for those who kill police and corrections officers would make it more dangerous for law enforcement personnel.
Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, who carried the bill, said it's been nearly 100 years since anyone in New Mexico was executed for killing a law enforcement officer.
The 24 senators who voted for the bill were all Democrats. Three Democratic senators — Richard Martinez of Espanola, Tim Jennings of Roswell and John Arthur Smith of Deming — joined the 15 Senate Republicans in opposing the bill.
This was the first time since 2001 the Senate has voted on a death-penalty repeal. Martinez that year voted for the repeal but Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose, who voted Friday for HB285 had voted against the similar bill in 2001.
Among those attending the Senate debate was Santa Fe screenwriter Dennis Yares, who recently wrote a screenplay for a book about a controversial, racially-charged New Mexico execution in 1933. The book, Justice Betrayed by Ralph Melnick, deals with Thomas Johnson, the first person to die in New Mexico's electric chair. The book makes the argument that Johnson, a black man, was framed for the murder of Angelina Jaramillo.
Yares told a reporter that shooting for the feature film is scheduled to begin in Santa Fe this fall.
The Associated Press reports that repeal legislation has passed the state Senate in Montana and awaits a House hearing. The state Senate in Kansas is expected to debate a repeal bill on Monday.
Contact Steve Terrell at 986-3037 or firstname.lastname@example.org